April 25 is a great anniversary in the history of anti-fascist struggle, writes Giuseppe Franci
In the midst of Italy's worst crisis since the end of World War Two it is a strange and sad irony that people should be commemorating the defeat of fascism by staying at home.
April 25 is a unique date in the Italian calendar. A public holiday that celebrates the victory of the people in arms against dictatorship. And there are still a few alive who fought to achieve that victory, old, and some of them inevitably infirm, but still alive and kicking, even in a time of pandemic.
Just three weeks ago one such hero, largely unsung outside his local community in Calabria, surfaced as a public figure to congratulate the President, Sergio Mattarella, on his campaign for national solidarity in the fight against Coronavirus.
Pasquale Brancatisano is now 98 and spent most of his life working the land around Samo, a small town right in the toe of the boot of Italy. But as a teenager he grew to hate Mussolini and everything to do with fascism, and even more so when he was conscripted to fight against the partisans in Montenegro.
So he in turn joined the partisans at home, ending up at the opposite end of the country as a member of the guerrilla army that finally overcame both Mussolini and his Nazi allies.
Pasquale and men and women like him have inspired generations of Italians. Some of them famous names, like the former President Sandro Pertini, some of them names carved in stone on memorials up and down the country, and some of them completely anonymous.
Loved – but also hated and despised. Because the defeat of fascism in 1945 was unfortunately not permanent. The spirit of patriotism allied with the hunger for a social revolution was strong enough to abolish the monarchy and forge a new democratic constitution, give women their political rights, and guarantee basic rights at work. But the revolution ended there, many fascists remained in office, notably in the police and the judiciary, and the cold war ensured that the Communist Party – the heart of the Resistance – was permanently excluded from any say in running the country.
The Constitution of 1948 outlawed the reforming of a fascist party, but almost immediately Mussolini’s old allies began to regroup, and the strength of the right-wing in the ruling Christian Democracy party ensured they did so with impunity.
It was a period of deep reaction, yet the celebration of the defeat of fascism has survived, despite the efforts of the right to abolish the holiday or turn it into something different, such as Day of National Conciliation or a memorial to all the fallen – including the butchers who fought alongside Hitler’s army under the banner of the puppet “Italian Social Republic”.
Every year since 1946 there have been demonstrations and rallies on April 25 – sometimes large, sometimes not so large, sometimes militant, sometimes a little tokenistic – but always a physical presence on the street and in the piazza.
Until now of course, because in the time of Coronavirus those who care about their fellow citizens and cherish the spirit of solidarity will be staying at home. There will be a few small gatherings at memorials and a few wreaths laid, but everyone on the left is determined to maintain the unity and self-discipline that has remained intact for the past six weeks.
A virtual demonstration has been organised instead, with people linked via the internet and social media, and expressing their solidarity by singing the national anthem –Fratelli d’Italia, the anthem of the Risorgimento – and Bella Ciao, the anthem that commemorates the partisans.
Without the pandemic this April 25 would have been an important event for socialists and anti-fascists. From the middle of November onward an amazing series of rallies right across Italy halted the seemingly inexorable advance of the right, and in particular its standard-bearer Matteo Salvini. The Sardines, as they called themselves, rallied under the banner of the Constitution and democracy – and also unity, inclusiveness, a rejection of narrow nationalism and opposition to fascism.
It was the largest single series of demonstrations Italy has ever seen, organised specifically against Salvini’s bid for power, sometimes bringing out hundreds with only a few hours’ notice, sometimes bringing in 50 or 60,000 to big rallies.
The Sardines played a central role in defeating the rightwing bid for power in the election in Emilia-Romagna in January, and this was followed by the start of their campaign in Tuscany, the other main regional bastion of the left.
Salvini’s bombastic aim was to “liberate” these regions – a deliberate and insulting attempt to subvert the spirit of liberation embodied in the ideals of April 25.
For April 25 was chosen as a day to celebrate not because it was the end of the Nazi occupation – that came a few days later – and not because it marked the end of the war, which came a few days after that. April 25 was and is the anniversary of the insurrection that freed the cities of northern Italy – Genoa, Turin, Milan and elsewhere – the moment when the guerrillas came down from the hills and mountains and joined up with the workers’ uprising to destroy the remaining fascist forces and force the German army into its final retreat over the Alps.
In this most dramatic and bitter of years that patriotic and revolutionary spirit is more vital than ever. For resistance against the fascism and the far-right has to continue even as we win the battle of attrition against the virus. And neither task will be easy.